We Should Welcome Hebrew Catholics

A Family Passover Seder Table Setting.

I always get into trouble when I start up a conversation on this topic, but the reason why I keep doing it is because I think its important. The topic is Hebrew Catholics. Within the Catholic Church there appears to be two extremes of thought.

The first extreme is the older one, which holds to the notion that when a Jew converts to Catholic Christianity, he should leave behind all that was of his Jewish heritage and ancestry. He should, in effect, forget that he was ever a Jew and just go on being a good Catholic. Any attempt to commemorate his Jewish heritage is considered "judaising" and is immediately condemned as a form of heresy -- even apostasy.

The second extreme is a newer one, but also a very old one, which holds to the notion that Catholicism must change to accommodate Jewish converts and make itself more "Jewish friendly." This usually consists of having parish-wide Passover seders and/or celebrating other Jewish customs on a parish-wide level.

I believe both extremes are wrong, but it is the latter one that that I have the most experience with.

Evangelical Protestants have taken this latter extreme to new heights by creating what is called "Messianic Judaism," which is really nothing more than Evangelical Christianity that has been re-branded as a form of "Judaism." In these Messianic "synagogues," as they are called, which are really just Evangelical churches, all members are encouraged to wear traditional Jewish worship attire, including tillit (prayer shawls), veils for women and kippa (yalmukah or skullcaps) for men. Jesus' name is replaced with Yeshua. The Holy Spirit is referred to by the Hebrew term Ruach Hakodesh. Worship is held on Saturdays instead of Sundays, and a good number of members practise kosher dietary laws. Some of these "synagogues" have even adopted Orthodox Jewish liturgical practises.

Back when I was an Evangelical, I flirted with Messianic Judaism quite a bit, because I found the liturgical aspects fascinating. In fact, you could say that Jewish liturgy, given a Christian illumination, actually played a significant role in my decision to become Anglican, and then eventually become Catholic. In spite of that, however, I was always amused by how many Evangelicals would suddenly "discover" their "long, lost Jewish ancestry" after joining one of these "synagogues." The pattern was predictable. They would go in as Evangelical Christians, professing to be Gentiles by heritage, then over time start calling themselves "Messianics." After a while longer... lo and behold!... they "discovered" some long lost ancestor from 200+ years ago, they never knew about before, who "just happened to be Jewish." So naturally, that must mean they're Jewish too. From that point on they begin calling themselves "Messianic Jews." Later I came to understand why this was happening. Messianic Judaism (Evangelical Christianity given a Jewish look) is probably the epitome of judaising. You see, the definition of judaising is: "to conform to the spirit, character, principles, or practises of Judaism." In other words, when Christians (who are not Jewish) are encouraged, or even pressured, to start acting like Jews by practising customs and rituals associated with Judaism, that is the definition of judaising. Saint Paul, the apostle, and the first Church Council in Jerusalem (recorded in the Book of Acts), utterly condemned judaising. The Church can never do it.

What does that mean however? It means that the Church can never encourage or pressure non-Jews to start behaving like Jews. The problem with these Evangelical "Messianic synagogues" is that their entire function and purpose is to accommodate Jewish converts to the point where non-Jewish Christians feel pressured to adopt Jewish customs and traditions themselves. In fact, non-Jewish Christians are often made to feel like they're somehow "less than faithful" if they don't. This is why so many of them adopt Jewish practises, start calling themselves "Messianics," and then suddenly "discover" their long, lost "Jewish" ancestry, so as not to feel left out or "second class."

What the Evangelicals have done with "Messianic Judaism" is the extreme form of what some Catholics are doing with their accommodation of Jewish converts. Granted, Catholics usually never go as far as Evangelicals do, but the spirit of judaising can still be there, and yes, it is wrong.

So what is the balanced approach?

Here's the deal. Saint Paul and the Council of Jerusalem absolutely condemned judaising. There is no question about that. There are no exceptions to it. It is condemned, and it is heresy to practise. But what exactly is judaising? As I defined above. Judaising is: "to conform to the spirit, character, principles, or practises of Judaism." By that is meant generally to conform the Church as a whole, and specifically to conform non-Jewish Christians. In other words, if you tell non-Jewish Christians that they should adopt Jewish practises, you are judaising. Likewise, if you change the character of Church devotion or liturgy, so as to pressure or coerce non-Jewish Christians to start acting out Jewish practises, even if its unintentional, you are judaising.

So to summarise, judaising simply means making non-Jews act like Jews. What it does not mean, however, is allowing Jews to act like Jews.

The Catholic Church, in order to remain Catholic, must always have a universal appeal. It must appeal to non-Jews alongside of Jews. It must be a religion that non-Jews can easily adopt, without having to feel like they're changing their culture and diet to do so. To simplify, the Catholic Church, in order to remain truly Catholic, must be a Church for all peoples. It cannot allow itself to become solely a Church for only one type of people.

Now this doesn't mean that the Catholic Church, in certain places, can't take on the cultural flair of the people who live there. For example, Catholic churches in Ireland have a very Irish flair. Catholic churches in Mexico have a distinctively Mexican flair. There are even certain uses and rites that appeal to specific cultures as well, having been born of those cultures. However, in spite of all this, the Catholic Church remains universal. No convert is expected to take up strict dietary laws, or exchange the culture they observe in their home, for another completely foreign to them. For example; as an American of north European descent, I could join a Byzantine Catholic Church if I wanted to, and worship God according to Byzantine Catholic ways. In my private home however, aside from some Byzantine prayers I might use, my life would essentially remain north European in style and character. I could continue to use traditional English prayers and devotions as I like, and have some tea and crackers in the afternoon, which I enjoy from my British heritage. I could continue to eat pork, sausages, schnitzel and bacon cheeseburgers, which is something very important to a Swedish-German American. I would not have to change my manner of dress, or be expected to wear anything distinctive in public or private. I would continue going to Oktoberfest in the fall to celebrate my German heritage, Yulefest in December and Midsommerfest in June to celebrate my Scandinavian heritage. In other words, I am still very much connected to my ancestral culture, and a good Catholic at the same time. See? The Catholic Church is universal. I don't have to become something I'm not to be a good Catholic Christian. The apostles saw this cultural flexibility as absolutely essential to preaching the gospel and saving as many souls as possible. They did not limit the gospel only to people who were willing to become culturally Jewish.

So judaising is about making non-Jews act Jewish. But judaising has nothing to do with Christian Jews who just want to be themselves by acting Jewish.

What does this mean?

It means if a Jew converts to Catholic Christianity, he can go on observing certain Jewish cultural norms, provided these in no way interfere with his newly adopted Catholic Christian faith. In other words, the Catholic Church just treats Jewish converts the same way as she treats everyone else. That is the balanced approach.

What we have to understand is that there is a culture that surrounds Jewish communities. Yes, the religion of Rabbinical Judaism played a significant role in forming that culture, but just because that religion played that role, doesn't mean the Church should obliterate the culture. That's not her way. It never has been.

So to summarise, a Jew can convert to Catholicism and become a Hebrew Catholic, maintaining many cultural traditions he/she is accustomed to, so long as it is understood that these cultural traditions in no way contribute to their necessary religious obligations as Catholics, and they in no way make them "superior" Catholics for observing them. They are just cultural traditions. So for example; if a Hebrew Catholic wants to keep kosher, observe Passover and other festivals privately in his own home, and wear a yalmukah and tillis during mass, all of this would be acceptable, so long as he understands that this does not contribute to his religious obligations as a Catholic, nor does it in any way make him a "superior" Catholic for practising them. It is just a cultural expression.

Could non-Hebrews participate in these activities as well? Yes, but a word of caution is in order here. Non-Hebrews might be easily misled, even unintentionally, into believing that these Hebrew traditions somehow contribute to their religious obligation, or in some way make them "superior" Catholics. I say this only from experience, because I've watched it happen. Hebrew Catholics should take extra care to make sure that any Non-Hebrew, who joins in their celebrations, is not doing so for misguided reasons. Priests and bishops should be especially sensitive to this as well, pointing out the teachings of Saint Paul and the Council of Jerusalem.

Does that mean that some Catholic parishes might actually take on a Hebrew cultural flair? I suppose one could, but only if said Catholic parish happens to be erected in a heavily populated Jewish area, with primarily Hebrew members. The same would be the case with any culture. However, it would be wrong to give a Catholic parish a Hebrew cultural flair if it's not primarily a congregation of Hebrew origin. Take for example places like Tel Aviv, or even some neighbourhoods in New York City. We could possibly see Hebrew Catholic parishes develop organically in these places, but its pretty hard to imagine them developing anywhere else. That being said, the sacramental nature of said parish would have to remain totally untouched by Jewish cultural norms. Any Catholic would need to be able to receive the sacraments there, comfortably, regardless of his cultural heritage or sensibilities. Likewise, there is no way the sacraments could be connected to Hebrew rituals in any shape of form. The two would have to be totally separate. Just like they are with the cultural rituals of other peoples.

So with that I will introduce the following videos. I am not alone in this opinion. I'm not just "winging it" here. I'm in good company. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a pillar of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the Catholic Church today, while he was Archbishop over the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, had quite a bit to say about this topic...

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We simply have to understand that what we're talking about here is nothing new. The early Church was highly accustomed to the mingling of Hebrew and non-Hebrew Christians. They laid out the rules very clearly in their time period. Hebrews can be Hebrews. They're allowed to express their cultural norms. However, they must freely associate with non-Hebrews as brothers, and are never allowed to impose those cultural norms on non-Hebrews. Nor are they permitted to think their cultural norms somehow make them "better" than other Catholic Christians. They don't. A Hebrew Catholic is no different than an Irish Catholic, or Italian Catholic, or German Catholic, or a Catholic who follows the Anglican Patrimony, or the Byzantine Rite, etc. We are all just Catholics, and none are "better" than the other. Our justification/sanctification is dependent on our union with Jesus Christ, not the particulars of the cultures from whence we came.  So long as we follow this rule, I think we will be balanced.

Along that line an organisation has developed that functions much like a support group for Jewish converts to the Catholic Church. It's called the Association of Hebrew Catholics. This was the organisation that provided the interview with Cardinal Burke in the videos above. The organisation simply helps Catholics, of Jewish heritage, express and live out that heritage within the context of "keeping it Catholic."

I bring this up because I sense that in the years ahead, we may be seeing a larger number of Jewish people convert to the Catholic Church. We need to be prepared for them, and we need to know exactly where everything stands. Again, this is nothing new. They're very old rules actually. It's just that we haven't had need to use them for a long time. I think that is about to change, and with that understanding, we should welcome Hebrew Catholics with open arms.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Pair O' Dimes said…
I haven't looked at the videos, but: it is okay for Hebrew Catholics to observe Passover privately in their homes? I may have misinterpreted but I thought a Catholic website said that Catholics should not go to Passover seders. Is what I read simply an example of condemning Judaizing, along with solely referring to public Passover seders and not private practice?

Years ago I looked into the origin of my last name because it's spelled in a peculiar way--and it's Judeo-Spanish. And while I don't know that my ancestors are among them, some with my last name (spelled the same way) were crypto-Jews who fled the Inquisition for what are now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico (and my patrilineal family came from Colorado). But apparently they converted to the Church for real in the late 1600's.

I've never been immersed in the Jewish culture, and so it's difficult to think of myself that way. And some things I find fascinating about pre-Christian Jewish culture, though it helps me appreciate the Catholic faith, I cannot experience firsthand (like what the Jewish priests did, described in Leviticus).

I have a concern, however, about the link you put up about the Association of Hebrew Catholics. Please don't take this the wrong way, but I don't like it when people treat "the Holocaust" like a religious dogma, as by calling nonbelievers "Holocaust deniers". (I put it in quotation marks because I don't like the religious connotations associated with that name, nor the definite article making it look as though it were a one-time unique thing.) Most historical events aren't treated that way, only religious dogmas that the powers that be believe in and enforce--and we keep being told that our culture supports "freethinking".

There is yet another thing standing in the way of my being a "Hebrew Catholic" as you describe. We should be free to (with Christian charity) look into the evidence and use freethinking reason for all historical events (that's actually how I came back to the Catholic faith). Is it not an example of the Judaizing heresy, as you've described it, to pressure people to conform to dogmatic belief in a historical event which victimized Jews, by guilt-tripping those who won't as somehow feeling hatred or indifference to the very real victims of that regime?

But at the same time, even more important for me to remember as a Catholic Christian (and especially as someone of Jewish heritage if I've guessed correctly) is not to give in to the lies of our modern culture by evaluating them morally in the opposite direction, the flip side of the false dichotomy. My trouble is that I am 1) ignorant, and 2) prideful, and therefore 3) paranoid, so it's hard for me to trust even authority figures--even though consciously I know how wrong that is.

I'm not really asking for help, I guess, unless you have someone to whom you can refer me, but I thought I'd get that out there so you could know my dilemma. Even if I'm wrong and I have no Jewish ancestry, it's still a problem, just for different reasons.

At any rate, thank you very much for showing the two extremes for what they are: both imply that you must give up your culture in order to be saved, but no one has to give up any culture in order to be saved.

Even that gives me difficulties, though, because I'm not quite clear on what parts of American culture (or perhaps Southwestern American culture) I can and should preserve either--because I'm not sure how much of that I was raised with. I'm just all-around unclear on where I stand, culture-wise, and suffering from pride doesn't help.

God bless you and be with you. Please pray for me and I will pray for you.
Shane Schaetzel said…
Pair O' Dimes, I apologise for my late reply. I think the prohibition the Church has placed on Jewish traditions pertain only in such cases wherein an act of worship (like a sacrament) is attempted. In other words, if one attempt to do with the Seder what is done in the mass, that is sacrilege.

The Seder, according to Cardinal Burke's instruction in he video, and the position of the AHC, is primarily a cultural celebration. It commemorates ancient Israel's relationship with God, but it is not an act of worship in and of itself. He same goes for other Jewish customs observed by Hebrew Catholics. They are not considered acts of worship.

It's no different than when I go to a Swedish Yulefest. At Yulefest we light candles, sing Advent/Christian songs, and even have a little procession honouring St. Lucia. But while this whole event has a very religious kind of appearance to it, none of it is an act of worship. It's just a cultural celebration. I'm Catholic, but alongside me are Lutherans and Atheists, all participating in the Yule festivities. It's a Swedish thing. That's all.

So long as our Swedish Yulefest remains cultural, and doesn't become a religious act, the Catholic Church is fine with my participation in it. The same goes for Jewish cultural festivities, such as Passover, etc. As long as they remain cultural, and are never mistaken for religious acts, they are permissible.